Vineyard Haven pours it on

Alcohol licenses help boost restaurants, meals taxes.

In this photo from June 2017, Kelsey Donaldson-Lang, a bartender at Copper Wok, pours the first dirty martini at the restaurant and the first in Vineyard Haven since voters approved all-alcohol licenses in town. — Rich Saltzberg

The numbers don’t lie. Year to year, Tisbury businesses paid nearly nearly $15,000 more in local meals taxes from the previous year — a 10 percent increase, according to town records.

In order to generate the additional $15,000 in meals taxes, which are 0.75 percent of the check, Vineyard Haven’s restaurants did $2 million more in total business.

At the end of last summer, businesses in town said they were doing better as a result of the town’s vote to add all-alcohol licenses; now the town’s records show that wasn’t just hyperbole.

“The increase in meals tax is most likely related to the broadening of the alcohol licenses to include liquor,” Jon Snyder, the town’s finance director, wrote in an email.

Jeff Kristal, chairman of the town’s finance committee and a proponent of the move to all-alcohol licenses, was more frank. “Absolutely,” he said. “A lot of restaurants are saying that the addition has added 10 percent.”

Kristal, who owns the Crocker House Inn, said the change, which was approved by voters in the spring of 2017, is keeping people in Vineyard Haven rather than sending them to either Oak Bluffs or Edgartown for dinner and drinks. “I think what happens is people linger. They come to town. They stay,” he said. “Now if we could just get the shops to stay open later than 6 or 7 at night.”

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said that’s something she’d like to see, as well. “When I first moved to Vineyard, 10 years ago, every shop in Edgartown closed at 6 o’clock,” she said. “Now they stay open until 10 or 11 at night. People are drawn to the restaurants and browse the shops.”
In Vineyard Haven, there are six restaurants that have all-alcohol licenses. Four others serve only beer and wine.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said J.B. Blau, owner of Copper Wok, one of the six license holders. “It has gone so far beyond our expectations and hopes. It’s hard to quantify. This was never about money or sales. This has been about telling people no, they couldn’t have a martini with their dinner, in a port town, the entranceway to Martha’s Vineyard. It was about turning people away.”

While opponents of the change predicted there would be problems with drunk and disorderly people and a change in the character of the town, that hasn’t materialized.

“There’s been 0.00 negative impact from this,” Blau said.

Tisbury Police Chief Daniel Hanavan confirmed there haven’t been any alcohol-related arrests or incidents traced back to the license holders. “Everyone runs their businesses well,” he said. “If I give you $20 in Tisbury, you have to get something to eat with your drink.” In other towns on the Island where alcohol is served, there is no requirement to order food.

On rare occasions, the food requirement still turns some patrons way, Blau said. And there are some annual visitors who still haven’t gotten the message that you can get a martini or a vodka and tonic with your meal in Vineyard Haven.

“That’s what makes this shockingly unbelievable,” Blau said. “Nobody expected too much the first year.”

There is a ripple effect throughout the economy when businesses do well, Gardella said.

“They go spend it other places on the Island,” Gardella said of the employees who work for those businesses. “It always equates to jobs and economic development for the Island as a whole.”

Kristal said he’s hopeful some of the vacant storefronts that remain, like the former Bowl and Board on Main Street, will become restaurants and will add to the revenue generated by meals tax.

Blau said he knows of a couple of restaurants looking to open in Vineyard Haven. “We’re still not there; it’s going to take time,” he said. But once potential restaurant owners see how well things are going, they’re going to want to invest in Vineyard Haven, Blau said. “That’s when you’ll really see an increase in town coffers.”

Kristal said if the so-called Airbnb tax on short-term rentals ever gets approved at the state level, that could also generate significant revenue for the town.

He’s hopeful at some point the town will ease the food requirement put on restaurants that serve alcohol. People generally get food anyway, but there’s no place for someone to go to get just a drink or a nightcap, he said.

Blau is just happy that things have worked out so well and that none of the predicted bad things have materialized: “It’s lived up to the hype.”